Western and Eastern nations are pushing fast-fashion disposal and sending unlabeled bales of used clothing—often used lingerie and defective items—to Africa. Most of it is not usable, climate appropriate or culturally relevant. Forty percent of it ends up in landfills, polluting the natural nutrients of the countries it is sent to. The countries sending the clothing cloak this as donations for poorer populations, when it is actually the equivalent of Chernobyl to the local African economies and their communities, which have to depend on that ecosystem for their livelihood. These communities become trapped in an endless cycle that damages their environment and debilitates the local cultural and fashion industries, keeping their future possible wealth entrapped for perpetuity.
Ghanaian Roberta Annan is a global-impact investor of high renown; the founder of a fund supporting Africa’s creative sector that is targeting €100 million; and a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Environment Programme. She is also the founder of the African Fashion Foundation, a nonprofit that invests in the early stages of creative entities in the Motherland. Her mission includes promoting and scaling African businesses, especially in fashion, by highlighting injustices to the African community. Fast fashion, badly made imported clothing, and markets with cheap and poor-quality goods all play a part in the stagnant growth of local designer companies, and it’s evident that people are determined to support local businesses; they won’t risk polluting their own communities with substandard products. Fast fashion not only promotes mass consumerism, but also often results in poorly made, low-quality clothing. These garments are frequently sold at low prices, attracting consumers with the promise of affordability but often come with their fair share of issues.
During a visit to Ghana, ESSENCE Ventures President & CEO Caroline Wanga spent time with Annan in a landfill, at a market and in her community. They discussed how fast-fashion brands often send defective items to Ghana—contributing to the country’s pollution, affecting wage distribution and undermining the success of the local fashion ecosystem and its entities.
Caroline Wanga: Who is Roberta?
Roberta Annan: I am a modern African woman. I embrace my identity, but at the same time, I have very deep cultural roots. I’m from a family that has been very pivotal in educating and promoting culture in the Ashanti—especially from the Ashanti tribe, from my mom’s side. And with the family that I come from, we’re very strong in education and giving back to society and the community. And that was basically embedded in me. So the concept of giving back has been part of my roots from very early stages. I was born here. I lived here until my early teens, and then I traveled—because my stepfather was Ghana’s High Commissioner to India. So the family moved to New Delhi, where I then got my high school education. I was actually 12 when I got the opportunity to travel to India. I went to Europe and then to India, and I saw the beautiful culture and…nature of Indians, and how they always wanted to promote who they are as a people, no matter where they went. And that really stuck with me.
Wanga: So there are Western entities that have taken an opportunity to dump what they don’t want to environmentally handle and send it here—knowing it’s defective, knowing it won’t be worn, knowing it’ll deteriorate the environmental health of countries like that. Did I repeat that right?
Annan: That is exactly the problem. I have no problem with trade—I have a problem with injustice. And if it’s not fair trade and it’s not equitable, the platform is not equitable for us as Africans. This is a community, and unfortunately for us, this is what we can do. The best we can do is to burn this junk.
Wanga: How do you define equity?
Annan: Equitable is when everybody gets an opportunity to voice their opinion and for their consideration to be part of a decision. And currently, that’s why I say it’s not equitable—because it’s like, it’s not balanced. The relationships have to be symbiotic. In this particular case, it’s extremely parasitic, because here, we are importing junk. We don’t even have the opportunity to pick what we want. We only see pre-packaged for us. So this is like: For Africa, you better take it. There’s no opportunity for you to even unravel it and see if this is actually something that is good for your country. And that to me is injustice.
There’s 15 million pieces of clothing that come to Ghana on a daily basis. About 40 percent of what is imported here ends up in landfill because they have defects and cannot be worn. Almost half of it ends up here. When it gets to the market, it’s when they unpack and unravel it. At that point, when they see that there are defects, the defects just get dumped.
Wanga: Is a 40% defect rate considered typical?
Annan: It shouldn’t be. If you are buying any commodity, you usually get maybe 1 to 2 percent, which is acceptable. So this is outrageous. I think it’s wrong, because I believe what’s going on is that the West is just dumping its junk in Africa. There should be checks and balances in place, to ensure that what we are importing is good quality. When you’re taking a flight, they even spray the plane so that you don’t take your bugs. So why do we have to get their bugs, in the form of defective clothes?
Wanga: Seriously. What is the government doing?
Annan: Suggesting that we should ban second-hand clothing. The people who are making money from actually importing these clothes are the women in the market, who take 1000 to 2000 cedis (86-127 USD) a day home because they sold these goods. And there’s another challenge: There’s talk about developing the local fashion industry. How can you develop the local fashion industry when you have cheap clothing coming in from China, from Australia, from U.K., from Europe? And that is why I feel the government needs to step in—not by banning, but by putting in measures to make things more equitable. Let’s take the opportunity to do quality control before the goods actually come. If you’re going to bring second-hand clothing, there should be a premium to pay. That can enhance the local industry and allow us to develop a fair process. We need to establish certain limits for people, to make everything fair in terms of pricing.
Wanga: To stop the cannibalism of the local fashion industry. So are there particular countries that are violating this more than others in the West?
Annan: I think in Ghana, if I remember correctly, the bulk of it comes from Australia and the U.K. I think the key thing here is, if you look at Europe, there is such a flair for luxury. Europeans believe in craftsmanship. They don’t mind spending lots of money, thousands of euros, to buy something that was made by let’s say Versace or Gucci. They are more into craftsmanship, and into buying extremely premium and luxury goods—versus the other parts of the world, where the infrastructure is just there for them to produce in a fast manner.
Wanga: So as an individual, should I stop shopping at ASOS? Should I stop shopping at Shein? Should I be boycotting that, as a part of doing something with it?
Annan: As a consumer, if you’re on the Internet ordering your clothes, do it in moderation. Don’t do it because, “Okay, I can buy this T-shirt and just throw it out tomorrow. So let me buy the next.” Do it in moderation. Also, try and talk to the people producing the clothes. Try and ask them very interesting questions, such as: “How are you producing these items? How is it impacting the environment? Who are you employing in your production process? Are you employing children? Are you paying your workers fair wages?” All these things are important—so [we want] to have that kind of transparency in our system, where we can hold people accountable for their actions and not just focus on profits.
Wanga: When the CEOs of home, culture and community are well, we’re all well. Right? If I live in New York, and I’m a girl who loves fashion, and I’m not going to stop loving fashion, what can I do from the one seat I sit in to change the narrative you have?
Annan: We need work done, and we need strategic partners. And we need money to achieve all of this. Taking all of this, sorting it out, taking it to the factory—it’s money. From organizations in the U.S. and beyond, we need to mobilize more funds, because it cannot be left as a government problem. I always say that in Africa, we have a lot of challenges—like education, access to good health. The government is always putting out fires. We’re right now trying to negotiate with IMF [International Monetary Fund] for a bailout. We have enough problems. But the private sector can come together—through crowd-sourcing, crowdfunding, donations—to actually support organized ventures like ours.
Credits: Kantamanto Market, Chocolate Clothes Global